GARDENING: The grass roots of New Gardening

Praised for his inovation, Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf is the talk of the contemporary pros. Mary Keen wasn't convinced - until she payed him a visit

THE WINDS of change are blowing over the nation's favourite pastime. Young designers have had it with Sissinghurst, Hidcote or Rosemary Verey's Barnsley. They like abstract lines better than formal ones, prefer grasses to flowers, and tend to base what they do on large-scale natural effects, rather than on highly cultivated traditional layouts. The modern tendency to island beds the size of small continents fills me with gloom, especially when they contain a very few low care plants, and whispering grasses. I had to go to Holland to discover that New Gardening can be an inspiration, and that grasses may not be as impossible to manage as I thought they were.

Piet Oudolf, a Dutch nurseryman and designer, has been the talk of the pros for the last year or so. New naturalistic gardeners praise his use of grasses, the scale of his planting and the range of perennials that he has personally selected. It sounded as though a trip to Piet's own garden was a must, because it would highlight the influences filtering through to modern English gardens.

The weather helped. On a golden autumn afternoon, three of us set off on bicycles from the village of Hummelo near Arnhem. Five kilometres of pedalling on flat traffic-free tracks with the sun on your back would put anyone in a good mood for garden visiting. When we arrived we found billows of high farm hedges surrounding a rectangle of garden in front of a gabled brick house with white shutters. The first impression was of many solid shapes of yew, stock still, between fountains of grasses that never stopped erupting. Because it was late in the year, colours were subdued: there was a lot of brown from seed heads but dots of red kept the garden from looking too dead. I suspect that at first we were all looking for different things and that each of us in turn found what we wanted - enough atmosphere and sense of place to satisfy me. A variety of plants (some of which none of us had seen before) to occupy Beth who trained at Kew, and for Kirsty, the artist, some extraordinary shapes and textures. Later, as we toured the garden with Oudolf we began to appreciate his highly organised and far from naturalistic approach.

He believes in using a restricted palette of plants: each border is conceived as a whole. Apart from yew and box, which are used as clipped accents, shrubs are rare. Perennials are his paints. These he often repeats, but never to the point of boredom. Certain forms recur: spikes, balls, cones and flat tiers of flowers are set against the plumes of different grasses. Bold groups are used to punctuate a bed, Eupatoriums in one place, hostas in another, but I suspect that his plant knowledge would prevent any of his schemes from becoming too formulaic. A plant has to have "good structure", "good texture" and be "good in death", to earn a place in an Oudolf border. Good structure means strong form and no need to stake. Beefy perennials stalk the garden. Picture a palette of man-sized, flat-topped umbellifers, large daisies, fountains of grasses and firebrands of polygonums and you get some idea of the drama of an Oudolf planting. Think of flowers that you thought you were bored by, like Echinacea (the cone flower with pink daisies) and imagine it in greenish white. Thalictrum 'Hewitt's Double', a filigreed rue with tiny purple flowers is a connoisseur's favourite, Thalictrum rochebrunnianum is even taller and more desirable and hardly known over here. The thrill of seeing new forms of familiar plants was repeated everywhere in the garden. There are Achilleas more than a metre high, in terracotta reds, rather than the pastel shaded numbers that we know, a monkshood, 10ft tall (Aconitum episcopali), recently introduced from China, late daisies in orange brown (Helenium 'Flammendes Katchen'), a sunflower with willow leaves (Helianthus salicifolius), enormous bergamots 'Monardas Cherokee' and 'Comanche', Selinum wallichianum like a foaming cow parsley, angelicas, especially a giant form, gigas, with stems and flowers tinged red. This is Alice in Wonderland territory where the people have shrunk and the plants seem to have doubled in size.

With half hardies Piet Oudolf never bothers. Plants have to survive colder winters than ours. Seed heads and grasses, heavy with cobwebs or dewdrops, or alive with small birds, can furnish a garden as well as flowers. All through the winter, plant-ghosts shimmer in the garden. Light plays, wind rustles over the grasses and if in some leaden-skied days it all seems too brown and wet, when the sun comes out all the dead lilies are gilded again. Movement is a great feature, so too is a sense that everything changes. Even in late autumn there is promise in the air. It is a garden of dynamic effect which could not have been made without the exceptional knowledge and vision of its creator. When he designs for those who know nothing about gardens Oudolf gives them something simpler.

The triumph of his complex plot is the sense of grandeur and space achieved in less than an acre. This is helped by the solid blocks of evergreen that provide a background for the pyrotechnics of the plants. In a nursery plot behind the house he and his wife, Anja, sell the varieties that amazed and surprised us in the garden.

I fear Piet Oudolf's garden must be seen to be believed. Before I went, several people had tried to describe it, but even the most eloquent failed to convey the combination of exuberance and restraint. If the pilgrimage to Hummelo is hard to arrange, the consolation is that the first Oudolf garden here should be no mean substitute. John Coke of Green Farm Plants, and one of our best specialist nurserymen, has commissioned his friend to design a garden for him at Bury Court near Farnham, where the nursery is based. After one season it already looks promising. It is top of my list for a visit and the chance to buy more Oudolf plants than you can carry on a bicycle.

! Piet Oudolf, Broekstraat 17, 6999 DE Hummelo, The Netherlands; open from April to November, Tues-Sat, 10am-4pm (00 31 31438 1120). Green Farm Plants, Bury Court, Bentley, Farnham, Surrey GU10 5LZ; open from mid-March to autumn; Wed-Sat, 10am-6pm (01420 23202)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions